Sony // 1961 // 157 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 10th, 2011
An impenetrable fortress, an invincible army...and the unstoppable commando team.
Cohn: "Do you think they've got any chance at all, sir?"
Commodore Jensen: "Frankly, no. Not a chance in the world. I should be very surprised if they get even halfway to Navarone."
The British military is eager to evacuate some endangered troops, but they can't get to the troops without passing by the Greek island of Navarone. Unfortunately, Navarone is equipped with two powerful hi-tech guns capable of destroying any ship that comes within range. An attack by air would be a similarly futile endeavor. As such, a team of six brave individuals is called upon to sneak onto the island and take out the guns. It's a suicide mission if ever there was one, but somebody's got to give it a shot. Leading the team is the firm, unflappable Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird), who's grown increasingly cynical as the war has marched on. He's aided by the embittered Col. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn, Revenge), the world-weary Cpl. Miller (David Niven, Casino Royale), the violent Pvt. Butcher Brown (Stanley Baker, Zulu), the green Pvt. Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren, Gidget) and the earnest Maj. Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle, Lawrence of Arabia). Will this band of hardened soldiers survive their perilous mission?
When lists of the great Manly Films About Men Doing Manly Things are arranged, The Guns of Navarone is bound to make an appearance. It's one of those beloved "men on a mission" films your History Channel-loving uncle watches every time it appears on television; a thrilling tale of adventure and heroism in the face of grave danger. As such, it might be easy for someone who hasn't seen the film to dismiss is as just another flag-waving war picture which substitutes reality for overblown cinematic heroism. However, part of what makes The Guns of Navarone such a moving, lasting flick is its cynical yet honest perspective on war. Yes, there are moments of flag-waving glory, but they are well-earned.
Part of what makes the dark, morally complex moments of The Guns of Navarone so disarmingly effective is they're contained within a film which superficially seems to resemble a jolly adventure. We expect characters to get picked off one-by-one in a flick like this (ala Desperate Journey), but we don't expect them to be forced to contemplate killing one of their own men for the sake of preserving the mission. When we encounter Nazis, they're not goose-stepping goons or cartoonishly villainous characters, just the deadly, capable opposition. Numerous philosophical musings are peppered throughout the film which remain resonant today, such as Captain Mallory's confession to Roy: "The only way to win a war is to be just as nasty as the enemy. The one thing that worries me is that we're liable to wake up one morning and find we're even nastier than they are."
The film is based on a novel by the no-nonsense Alistair MacLean, whose works often fell into an intriguing place between cynicism and larger-than-life derring do. While I'd contend that Where Eagles Dare is a greater representation of the author at his best (perhaps partially due to the fact that MacLean actually wrote the screenplay for that film), The Guns of Navarone is probably the most well-regarded effort based on his work. Even at a sprawling 157 minutes, the film feels tight and efficiently-organized. Yes, the story could have been told in 90 minutes, but not with the same measure of clarity, suspense and (particularly) character depth the film enjoys. It quickly becomes apparent that the men in The Guns of Navarone aren't the usual one-dimensional types which often appear in men-on-a-mission flicks; they're complicated individuals who can't simply be dismissed as "the angry one," "the foreign one," or "the funny one."
The actors seem to relish the opportunity to dig into material this meaty. The tense relationship between Peck and Quinn (the latter has vowed to kill the former after the war ends) is somewhat reminiscent of the relationship between the two in The World in His Arms, but that film made Peck's gravitas a liability and forced Quinn to play a painfully dated ethnic caricature. The Guns of Navarone allows Peck to play to his strengths (including speaking in his traditional voice despite the fact that the character is British) and doesn't require Quinn to do anything ridiculous to emphasize the fact that his character is Greek. These two both deliver performances of admirable understatement; there's a great deal of quiet chemistry between them. Niven also impresses as the increasingly despairing Miller, and he generates real sparks with Peck when the two engage in some heated ideological debates. Making a strong impression in early cameos are the jovial James Robertson Justice (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as the Commodore who sends Mallory on the mission and Richard Harris (Gladiator) as a frustrated Squadron Leader who delivers a memorable speech.
As directed by the workmanlike J. Lee Thompson, The Guns of Navarone manages to be the atypical war film which never becomes too muddled when it hits the battle scenes. Everything is staged in appreciably coherent fashion; we're never in any doubt about what the men are attempting to accomplish. It's not a non-stop action-fest by any stretch of the imagination, but the explosive moments are pretty thrilling when they do arrive (luckily, Thompson peppers enough of these throughout the entire picture to keep the energy level fairly consistent).
The Guns of Navarone blasts its way onto Blu-ray sporting an impressive 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. It's important to note that the film has always looked kind of rough on home video, as the film wasn't properly processed and preserved to begin with. As such, some sequences look a bit rough (particularly some of the shipwreck material and the battle stuff towards the end), but the film looks noticeably better than it ever has before. Don't expect the rich beauty you've seen from other Blu-ray releases of Cinemascope productions, but the folks at Sony deserve credit for doing a good job with what they had to work with. Audio is less problematic, as many portions of Dimitri Tiomkin's score sound as if they could have been recorded yesterday (and it's a great score; alternately jingoistic and solemn in a manner befitting this flick), while dialogue is impressively crisp throughout. The battle scenes are fairly explosive, but occasionally a bit muddled (less so than some war films of the era, but muddled nonetheless).
Supplements have primarily been ported over from the previous DVD release: two audio commentaries (one with Thompson and one with film historian Stephen J. Rubin), the retrospective documentary "Memories of Navarone," a boatload of featurettes ("The Greek Resistence," "The Old School Wizardry of the Guns of Navarone," "WWII and the Greek Islands," "The Real World of Guns of Navarone," "The Navarone Effect," "Military Fact or Faction," "Forging the Guns of Navarone: Notes From the Set," "Ironic Epic of Heroism," "Epic Restoration," "A Heroic Score," "Great Guns," "No Visitors," "Honeymoon on Rhodes" and "Two Girls on the Town") an optional roadshow intermission card (personally, I think it's kind of fun to insert this into the film), a narration-free prologue, a brief message from Carl Foreman and an interactive "The Resistance Dossier of Navarone" feature which offers all sorts of behind-the-scenes and historical tidbits as you watch the film.
Fifty years after its initial release, The Guns of Navarone is still a thrilling, thoughtful war flick. The Blu-ray release does it justice.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 157 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interactive Feature
* Alternate Prologue
* Carl Foreman Message
* Intermission Card